Philosophy 312: Oriental Philosophy
The Principle of Charity
Principle of Charity is a presumption often made in
philosophy whereby preconceptions about an argument, a topic, or a belief
are set aside in the attempt to gain new understanding.
Principle of Charity is a methodological presumption made in seeking to
understand a point of view whereby we seek to understand that view in its strongest, most
persuasive from before subjecting the view to evaluation.
- While suspending our own beliefs, we seek a sympathetic understanding of the
new idea or ideas.
- We assume for the moment the new ideas are true even
though our initial reaction is to disagree; we seek to tolerate
ambiguity for the larger aim of understanding ideas which might prove
useful and helpful..
- Emphasis is placed on seeking to understand rather
than on seeking contradictions or difficulties.
- We seek to understand the ideas in their most
persuasive form and actively attempt to resolve contradictions.
If more than one view is presented, we choose the one that appears the
- The principle of charity is a methodological principle—ideas
can be critiqued after an adequate understanding is achieved.
The original presumption of setting aside our own beliefs and assuming
the new ideas are true is only a provisional presumption.
- Hence, we should listen and read in the beginning as
if we had no personal attitudes. We should seek to be open and
- This attitude, if maintained, frees the
conditioned mind and enables it to absorb and understand the new.
- In essence, we just start with a simple desire to get
a point not understood upon first acquaintance.
- Refinements of the principle of charity in philosophy include the
principle of rational accommodation whereby we attempt to maximize
truth and the principle of humanity where we attempt to maximize
- Willard Van Orman Quine's version of the principle is this maxim of
translation: "[[A]ssertions startingly false on the face of them are
likely to turn on hidden differences of languages." (W. V. O. Quine, Word
and Object (Cambridge, Mass: The M. I. T. Press, 1960), 59.)
- Donald Davidson suggests the principle of charity (or, in his
words, "the principle of rational accommodation") should
attempt to "maximize" sense and "optimize" agreement when
invoked with respect to coherence and factual correspondence of
what is said.
- Principle of Coherence:
seeks "logical consistency in the thought of the speaker."
- Principle of Correspondence:
seeks the same feature of the world that [we] would be
responding to under similar circumstance."
- The humanity principle
as put forward by Richard Grandy is that we should initially interpret
a different philosophical point of view in accordance with the
assumption that the interrelation of belief and reality being
expressed is similar to our own. As Donald Dennett explains
the principle of humanity,
"[O]ne should attribute to [the person's whose view we are
attempting to understand] … the propositional attitudes one
supposes one would have oneself in those circumstances."
- Some examples of uses and possible benefits on the application of
the principle of charity in the analysis for new ideas:
- Feynman writes in his Nobel Prize Lecture
about struggling with the notion of backward causation in quantum electrodynamics:
… all physicists know from studying Einstein and Bohr, that sometimes
an idea which looks completely paradoxical at first, if analyzed to completion in all
detail and in experimental situations, may, in fact, not be paradoxical.
- Dostoevsky writes in his
Notes from Underground
that what is not in one's own interest may be precisely that which is
in one's own interest:
Through consideration of the seemingly contradictory idea that one's advantage can
be what is not ones advantage, Dostoevsky reveals the notion of unconscious
tell me, who was it first announced, who was it first proclaimed, that man only
does nasty things because he does not know his own interests; and that if he were
enlightened, if his eyes were opened to his real normal interests, man would at
once cease to do nasty things, would at once become good and noble … we all
know that not one man can, consciously, act against his own interests … And
what if it so happens that a man's advantage, sometimes not only may, but
even must, consists in his desiring in certain cases what is harmful to himself
and not advantageous[?]
- In Hinduism, God may be worshipped as a child when the devotee
worships Krishna. A Christian, uncharitably, might be inclined to believe
Hinduism is a polytheistic religion. Yet, for the Christian, the notion
of the Christ Child could be suggested by the application of the principle
of humanity in order to help understand this ideal in Hinduism.
Swami Vivekanda writes:
The similarity belief and attitudes between Christianity and Hinduism,
in this regard, removes unnecessary difficulties in understanding.
The next [human representation of the ideal of divine love]
is what is known as Vatsalya, loving God not as our Father but as our
Child. This may look peculiar, but it is a discipline to enable us
to detach all ideas of power from the concept of God. … [T]he
Christian and the Hindu can realize [this idea of God as Child] easily,
because they have the baby Jesus and the baby Krishna.
Code of Conduct for Effective Rational Discussion. Jonathan Davis's
useful summary of twelve principles of for open discussion in Usenet
debates is drawn from Attacking Faulty Reasoning by T. Edward
of Charity. Philosophical and rhetorical principles are briefly
summarized by Wikipedia.
- Unbeggable Questions.
( PDF) Some problems with the principle of charity are noted in
passing in this paper from Analysis by Roy Sorensen on the
fallacy of begging the question.
Check your understanding
with a Quiz on The Principle of Charity.